1863: The 107th Ohio Confronts a New Year

1863 began ominously for the men of the 107th Ohio, an ethnically German regiment harvested the previous summer from a dozen northeastern Ohio counties. As abolitionists in Boston and New York City rejoiced that Lincoln had affixed his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation, the Buckeyes huddled around the fresh grave of Corporal Philip Oakleaf who, on New Year’s Day, succumbed to typhoid—one of many deadly diseases that romped through the Army of the Potomac’s camps that winter. Captain Barnet Steiner delivered a short if eloquent funeral sermon, seizing the opportunity—especially at the beginning of a new year—to impress upon all members of the regiment “the necessity of living right, discharging every duty to the best of our ability.” The war demanded moral and spiritual vigilance, Steiner reminded, because death could issue its “summons” at any time.

As evidenced by Steiner’s simple eulogy, soldiers never became completely desensitized to death (despite some of their claims to the contrary). Nor would soldiers ever tolerate the war’s contempt for individuality. The nature of death in the Civil War—sometimes bereft of meaning, often unspeakably violent, and nearly always at a distance from loved ones back home—not only invited sorrow and regret; it likewise intensified the soldier’s innate fear of being forgotten.

Another of the regiment’s volunteers, Jakob Kuemmerle, passed away just a few weeks later. “It was very hard for us to see him die,” Christian Rieker confessed, “so far removed from family and siblings, and in such a wild, rough, unfavorable area as it is here in Virginia.” Kuemmerle’s hasty burial clearly disturbed his old friend. “He is just lying here, only one comrade at his side in the wide, broad field, perhaps an old cotton field,” Rieker protested. “I do not think it will make much difference to a dead man, but it looks quite uninhabited for those who behold it.” Other soldiers wept as they watched an African American burial detail lower lifeless bodies into a long, narrow trench.[1]

The death of a comrade rent the fabric of a Civil War regiment, but often in a way that renewed its commitment to the struggle. Who, after all, could endure the thought that Philip Oakleaf and Jakob Kuemmerle might have died in vain? “The great question among us,” an enlisted man in the 107th revealingly asked, “is when will this war end? And how will matters stand when it is ended?”[2]

Over the next five months, bad weather, ever-lengthening sick rolls, and disquieting new evidence of disloyalty back home would render those questions more difficult—and thus more imperative to answer. For the men of the 107th Ohio—and for the nation—this was the story of 1863. The year would bring hope and peril, triumph and tragedy, death and “new birth.”


     [1] Christian Rieker to his sister and all, February 17, 1863 [typescript translation], in Society of Separatists of Zoar Records, Box 96, Folder 1, Ohio History Connection; Jacob Kummerle Carded Medical Records, RG 94, entry 534, Box 2843, NA; Thomas Evans Diary and Memoir, Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection, LC.

     [2] “C.” to “Friend William,” February 14, 1863, in Stark County Democrat, March 4, 1863; “From the Fifth,” Danbury [Connecticut] Times, December 18, 1862.

3 Responses to 1863: The 107th Ohio Confronts a New Year

  1. Just as with the immigrant Irish, these German soldiers also fought for the Union. I wonder what they must have thought of the new country that they had immigrated to at that time. The U.S. Civil War that they were recruited to fight in was being fought between two sections of the country that held opposing viewpoints. Did these recruits think about the reason why they were fighting on a certain side during this war? What were their thoughts as they joined up to fight? What were the thoughts of the groups of Irish (and Germans?) that fought for the Confederacy? Why did they fight for the South? I would have loved to have interviewed these men as they joined in battle, fighting each other from opposite sides in their new homeland. The eternal question: Why?

  2. My Great, great Grandfather serviced with Company C of the 107th, somehow he survived and I’m here today,

  3. I enjoyed Professor Jordan’s discussion of the 107 th Ohio on a recent edition of the Civil War Regimental Podcast.

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